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A Weekend in the Highlands

  • Submitted by: Aram McLean, Canada
  • Submission Date: 23rd Feb 2009

A Weekend in the Highlands

Cast of characters:

Andrew: Fellow Canadian from Calgary who is partaking in a University exchange to Dundee, Scotland. Dark-skinned, tall, strapping rugby player with unruly locks of dark, wavy hair and…you get the picture I think.

Aram: Pale-skinned, emaciated lad (thank you Scottish weather). He is employed at the Inchnadamph Lodge. His first ‘proper’ haircut in four years has left his abnormally large head appearing slightly smaller than usual. Aram’s known ‘affectionately’ by some folks as Airbum, due to an unfortunate incident on the school grounds when he was only an innocent nine year old. Aram will be your narrator for the story.

Sir Chris: Hailing from South London and owner of the infamous Inchnadamph Lodge, home to wintering deer and many small grey rabbits, Chris is a well-adjusted chap of good humour and a pleasure to work for.

Leigh: Fellow staff member of Airbum…uh…Aram. Just returning from his Eastern European tour, Leigh played a major role in past highland tales and will make a brief cameo appearance in this episode for his adoring fans.

Setting: The picturesque village of Inchnadamph which is made up of one, three-storey, twin-peaked mansion built in 1821. Formerly a hunting lodge for the rich and famous this outstanding structure lay derelict for many years before Chris and his family converted it into a popular hostel. Inchnadamph also consists of an old, rotting hotel that should have been destroyed a long time ago; an incomplete private home; and about six people present on any given day if guests in the hostel are not included. Mountains surround this small community and Loch Assynt twinkles across the road to the west. Some caves and a ruined castle also play a role in this tale.

Prologue

The highlands can be a fairly cold and bleak place in the winter. Reality of sunshine swiftly becomes a legend of myth told in icy whispers by stooped, wrinkled elders to fascinated youngsters whilst they sit huddled, palms outstretched, around a burning hearth of precious coal. Grey is the predominant shade abounding in the air. Some ancient memory knows that there are mountains standing proudly and majestically all around, but the churning fog turns these massive geological wonders of upheaval completely invisible. Your faith knows that they are there, but your senses dispute. Waking up come morning one can only poke one’s head out of a tightly drawn sleeping bag, breathe out, and if the exhale solidifies and falls crashing to the floor, it’s back into the sanctuary of the bag and a return to dreams of that long distant, mysterious and wonderful substance as called by the dark, cloaked ones ‘heat’.
Such was the life of my reality in frosty Inchnadamph. With Leigh gone on foreign travels I lived alone. Then, out of the far-distant reaches of Scotland, from the mythical institution preached by the wised folk as the University of Dundee, a tall dark man arrived wearing various coloured clothing on his body with a pack strapped to his back. T’was Andrew of the sacred union of Rugby and with his coming sunshine blossomed and long forgotten mountains burst through the greyness to scream out with clarity and crispness, ‘Yes, we do still exist!’ and ‘No, we have not deserted you!’
Faith renewed and bogged down emotion thrown off I stared in awe at the blessed light of heaven pouring through my defrosting window. Springing from my thawed-out sleeping bag I rushed to greet this mysterious visitor to Inchnadamph. This man who brought sunshine on his back and burned heat from his eyes gave off a sense of adventure to scour the skies.

Day 1: Friday

Andrew arrived as a friend of a friend to me. A barely known entity connected through the friendship of another. He was quickly realized to be quite a nice bloke indeed.
Andrew: “Hey…Aram?”
Aram: “Yes…Andrew?”
Andrew: “So this is the lodge?”
Aram: “Aye, so it is.”
More equally thrilling conversation followed then it was off to the hotel pub. This hotel is truly a wondrous place. Situated to the south across a small stream that empties into Loch Assynt, Inchnadamph Hotel is home to the most unfriendly, unwelcoming, atmospheric-challenged pub in the history of kegs on tap. Sadly, it was the only one within walking distance. I had almost been banned from said pub recently for telling the owners the truth. Still, Andrew, Sir Chris and I returned to pay custom in the darkening night. There’s a pool table, so what the hell. The Afrikaans bartender made us feel right at home and welcome with his generous greeting.
“What the hell do ya want?”

Day 2: Saturday

Eight o’clock came and the glowing ball of fire still kissed the glistening mountain peaks. Andrew’s magic presence had transformed our humble valley into an oasis of joy. After serving our meagre supply of guests a most healthy and filling breakfast of cereal I begged Chris for the rest of the day off. I pleaded that my psyche needed a walk under clear skies through springy heather and across rocky ridges if it were to stand any chance of recovery from the grey weight of recent weeks. Chris gave into my pleas reluctantly and with full hearts Andrew and I set off for the nearest Munro, Conival.
‘Munro’ is the name given to any Scottish mountain that exceeds three thousand feet in height; named for a Sir Hugh Munro who first catalogued them. There are 284 of these large hills scattered throughout the highlands and islands of Scotland and many a seasoned walker, armed with double-barrelled walking sticks, can be seen spending their summers and winters attempting to bag them all. Complete the list and truly you must be a walker of awe-inspiring skill! Or so you’d think to hear them rave on about it. There’s actually a number you can call to get help for this kind of addiction. I’m serious.
Andrew and I began our own personal ascent of a Munro with no list in hand. My boots were salvaged from a previous owner forgetting them in the lodge. They began the first leg of the journey feeling comfortable but before the ridge was surpassed my feet were an eruption of blisters and my toes felt ready to burst. Still there was only an ambitious happiness as we journeyed on up the well-worn path through bogs of mud and hidden streams. We passed through the cluster of 23 trees that make up the revived Inchnadamph forest and were duly impressed by the replanting efforts. Then it was rock and snow and the water that had earlier filled my cheap, borrowed boots laughingly froze solid. The smile remained however, the air was clear and the view became less interrupted.
We sat and munched sandwiches from atop the rocky ridge of Conival. Below stretched a rolling green plain dotted with deer playing in the small lakes and ringed by distant mountain ranges. Clouds hung suspended in the air below the sheer cliff we stood on.
Travelling further northwest we came upon a stark area known as ‘Airplane Flats’. A lone cross stands clearly on this rocky plateau atop a pile of stones beneath which lie the bodies of a five R.A.F. crewmen. Scattered across a nearby marsh twisted propellers, mashed wheels and torn bits of metal are strewn. This is all that remains of the R.A.F. bomber-plane that crashed here in 1941. Returning safely from a successful bombing run the plane became lost in the thickening fog and crashed into the mountaintop. The crew were only moments from their homes and families which makes it all the more tragic.
We stood there, gazing at these brave men’s lonely grave, when I realized that it was November 11th, Remembrance Day. A fitting place to be on such a day with reality of brutal past made emotionally present.
The fog began rolling in over the jagged ridge so Andrew and I slowly descended the backside of the hilltop. A few wrong turns later and we found ourselves navigating a very steep, wet and muddy cliff face. This only served to heighten our boyish love of adventure however and we bolted down the treacherous descent like a couple of dumb, frisky mountain goats.
With the day shining bright in beauty all around us moments of cold and loneliness in the highlands burned clean away from my soul and my heart remembered the feelings that only this magnificent land can inspire. Colours and contrast as no other place on earth, like an ancient, weary, battle-scarred warrior bursting with countless tales of valour and romance. So vibrant! So bloody alive!
Arriving at the ruin of Ardvreck Castle that is built on a small peninsula jutting into Loch Assynt we could only imagine the long-expired population that once attempted to thrive in this area. With land granted in a charter by King David II in 1343 to Torkyll MacLeod, Ardvreck Castle was originally built and owned by the MacLeod Clan. The small curved dungeons can be seen where James Graham, Marquis of Montrose, was imprisoned after his defeat at the Battle of Carbisdale in 1650 on the side of the Royalists. He was later sent to Edinburgh where he was hanged and dismembered as an ‘attainted rebel’.
Besieged and raided by a rival Clan MacKenzie who felt that they had more right to the area, Ardvreck Castle eventually fell in 1672. A fire finished the destruction soon after and only a ruin remains today.
Still, one tower stands defiant, overlooking the loch, testament to a legacy of blood and deceit much more detailed and brutal than I have just described.
We next walked past the ruins of a massive stone mansion built on the whim of Lady MacKenzie after her Clan had defeated the MacLeods. She is said to have not liked the draftiness of the castle. One of her other spoiled vices was the want of an ox tongue every night for her dinner - a sweet tooth that swiftly diminished the MacKenzie’s local herd of oxen.
Calda House, as the mansion was named, fell victim to arson only ten years after being completed in 1727. Lady MacKenzie died penniless a few years later in contrast to her former extravagant lifestyle. Her husband followed suit soon after.
Eventually the estate was auctioned off and purchased in 1757 by the Sutherland family for £12,000. This area, that Inchnadamph also lies inside, is still owned by that family and bears their name.
With our brief historical excursion of my home in the highlands completed Andrew and I headed back to the lodge with dusk falling. My feet were beginning to scream inside their evil dwellings and relief was only found in removing the hated presence from my mangled toes and throwing the boots into the fire’s hungry flames.
Night followed and found the two of us fighting off the whistling admiration of an unrelenting youth group of eighteen, fifteen-year-old girls who were paying guests for the night. Somehow every one of them managed to get blazing drunk and obnoxious despite the presence of ten adult leaders. A wild night to be sure with peace and good conversation only to be found after the last of the wee lass’ had passed out wherever they happened to fall.

Day 3: Sunday

We got our eight hours sleep and were awake for noon. There was still a visible sun and rain filled not the air.
Andrew: “I seem to have really good luck with weather wherever I go.”
Aram: “Yes? Well stick around then.”
Back up the well-worn path we made our way for the local river-cave. Armed with torches and grubby clothes we entered the small crevasse that marked the opening to a cave twisting 1400 meters into the hillside. A stream flowed heavily through the first cavern, swelled by winter rains, but we crossed over and journeyed deeper into the darkness. I had been in this cave before but had never explored it all.
Aram: “Hey look, I haven’t been through this tunnel yet!”
Being one of those people who must explore every tiny opening in the earth I quickly began crawling and sliding through the mud and pressing rock. It was a tight, twisting squeeze and Andrew, being the larger man, felt hesitant to follow. Stalactites and stalagmites filled the next cavern and a shallow pool was the ground. It was quite magnificent. After a moment to take in the incredible scenery through the flashlight’s beam I noticed another tunnel leading further on and once again was pulled deeper into the hillside. Andrew, glad to be out of the dwarfs tunnel at least, followed.
A powerful waterfall shot through the next chamber flowing swiftly down into a crevasse below us. Spray covered our faces and a deafening roar pounded our ears. We looked upon this crashing sight for a short while until glancing above the mighty waterfall I saw there was another tunnel. Quickly I was off again, scrambling over the crest of the surging water and deeper into the ongoing cave.
The rocks opened up abruptly into a massive cavern. It felt like freedom after the constricted journey. We were able to stretch out and spin around if so desired. The ceiling jutted off into the darkness, way above our upturned heads. To the left lay a shimmering body of water. Its dark surface seemed to be a gaping wound leading straight down to the centre of the earth. We skirted the edge and made our way into an exiting tunnel on the opposite side. Continuing passages kept calling me further on and deeper in.
Unfortunately an approaching shift of work beckoned me back to the lodge so finally, reluctantly, with chambers left to explore, we decided to turn back. The passageways looked strangely different on the return journey and there seemed to be more of them.
Aram: “Does this look familiar to you?”
Andrew: “Um…I’m not sure…I think it’s this way…”
Aram: “Right, okay…this is definitely the way. Yes, I remember this route.”
Andrew: “Okay then.”
Aram: “Oh…wait a minute…bit of a dead-end here…oh [--]! Perhaps this isn’t the way?”
Confidence began to fade. I could feel my breathing wanting to speed up and my heart begged to let free and race. That feeling of helplessness and a touch of panic entered my over-confused brain.
Andrew remained perfectly calm.
Andrew: "No Aram...I think it’s this way. Yes...yes...here’s the pool...and of course, there’s the bloody dwarf tunnel we first entered!"
Aram: “Um…uh…yes, that’s right! Nice one! Good, good, good! Mind if I give you a hug man?”
Another twisting crawl, a stream forged, and the brightest, cleanest outside air was entered with a ‘whoop’! Sopping wet to the skin and covered in mud we were yet big, white-toothed grins exploded across our brown-streaked faces.
A quiet night with a movie and blazing fire followed. Then it was to sleep and to dream of our daring survival in the perpetual darkness.

Day 4: Monday

The morning felt like rain and with my feet needing serious recovery time from their hellish experience in the killing boots I opted to stay in. Andrew, always eager to explore more, left for another walk. I couldn’t help but notice the sun burst through the clouds as soon as he began his hike.
I seem to be pretty lucky with weather wherever I go.
I grunted and turned another page in my book.
The evening wound down in an empty Inchnadamph Lodge. Heading to the local fluorescent pub for one last pint and a game of pool Andrew and I marvelled over a most beautiful weekend - weather-wise, time-wise and experience-wise. Arriving as a friend of a friend, Andrew would leave as simply a friend, and a good one at that.
We were walking home from our pints past the Loch Assynt when the clouds overhead parted and the moon pierced through their gradual opening. Mist in the air caught the mellow beams and a startling ‘moonbow’ arched across the night sky to reflect shimmering in the water. We stopped in our stride and took in a moment of appreciation for one such wonder in many as this world is composed.

Day 5: Tuesday

The school bus arrived at eight o’clock in the morning. Young students gaped at the tall, dark man who stepped aboard to begin his long journey back to the legendary city of Dundee and the sacred union of Rugby. As the door shut behind Andrew, carrier of sunshine on his back and pourer of heat from his eyes, rain began sheeting down from the heavens. The surrounding mountains grew invisible once again behind a thick wall of impenetrable grey. The bus disappeared south towards the lowlands of Scotland.
Stuff of legends they say.

Epilogue

A few hours and a brief nap later I awoke to the sight of Leigh returning unexpectedly from his long pilgrimage to the eastern lands. The smile shone as ever from his happy face and united all three - Chris, Leigh and Aram - laughter pealed out from the interior of the Inchnadamph Lodge as stories were exchanged. Grey was the weather once more but our hearts were merry. Spirits soared high above the descended clouds and ancient Inchnadamph felt young again.
That evening the heavens cleared and stars twinkled brightly in the night sky.

End/Beginning

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